Home » Survivors of boarding school for troubled teens expose shocking abuse in new docuseries

Survivors of boarding school for troubled teens expose shocking abuse in new docuseries

by John Jefferson
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A new docuseries chronicling abuse of troubled teens at the hands of New York’s Academy at Ivy Ridge has prompted a wave of new police reports from former students and a police investigation into the now-shuttered boarding school.

Netflix’s “The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping” follows director Katherine Kubler and her former classmates as they visit the site of the school that closed in 2009. Student files, including Kubler’s, were all still at the abandoned site, giving the students more insight to process what happened to them.

They said they spent years isolated from their families and were “treated like prisoners, undergoing mental, physical and sexual abuse,” according to the series.

The former students claim they underwent abuse ranging from abduction from their homes, strip searches, starvation, sleep deprivation, corporal punishment and solitary confinement. Meanwhile, they said, they received no formal education.

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Teens in the program were reportedly not allowed to smile, speak or have any communication with the outside world. Phone calls and letters to parents were closely monitored, and any attempts to tell their loved ones about the abuse they endured would be intercepted and punished.

Victims said they were “brainwashed” by a program that painted them as drug-addicted, manipulative and hopeless — and that still-existing programs for troubled teens throughout the country use the same damaging methods.

Abandoned Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg, New York

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Several former students reported sexual abuse at the institution, which filmmakers called an “open secret at Ivy Ridge.”

“They dehumanize the kids, that these kids are liars, manipulators, and they use that to create compliance,” one interview subject said.

Kubler and her classmates described mandatory endurance exercises called “seminars” — in one, they would spend about an hour screaming and slamming towels wrapped in duct tape on the ground. If they stopped the exercise, they said, they were sent to a new seminar meant to break them.

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Two former students who attended the program for 22 months when they were 15 years old said that they had to sit on a chair and repeat the words “palms up, palms down, palms together, palms apart” while acting out the instructions with their hands for eight uninterrupted hours.

In high school, Kubler said, she found herself “drinking, smoking, sneaking out at night… typical teenager stuff.” 

She was expelled from her boarding school during her sophomore year in 2004 for having alcohol and assumed her father would pick her up. Instead, her parents had arranged for two men to abduct her and take her to Ivy Ridge.

Kubler said the trauma she endured there followed her for the rest of her life, with one college roommate telling her that she “[didn’t] need to explain the program to everyone [she] met.”

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“They really drill into you this complete sense of shame, and that you’re this horrible person for being there, so I felt like I had this disclaimer I needed to say to people,” she said.

The St. Lawrence County District Attorney’s office and state police said at a Monday press conference that complaints of abuse at the school near Ogdensburg have been pouring in every day since the series first aired on March 5.

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District Attorney Gary Pasqua urged the public not to call the DA’s office to harass staff or inquire about the investigation. He also asked that the public not trespass on the abandoned Ivy Ridge property. 

“I understand the reaction that is going to come from watching some of the things that were on those videos. But it is not a reason, it does not give you a free pass to go and harass anyone, whether it be a person or a business,” Pasqua said. “Please. Let us do our job.”

Former staffers of the school have also been harassed and even threatened with violence, Pasqua said. 

The documentary claims that staff members at the school were untrained and had no credentials — neither did those who created the program itself, according to the three-part docuseries.

In the last episode of the series, titled “Follow the Money,” filmmakers explored where the profits from these programs went. Robert “Bob” Lichfield founded the Worldwide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools, and the Academy at Ivy Ridge was one of more than 25 boarding schools or youth programs affiliated with the Utah-based group worldwide.

The organization made millions each year until it dissolved amid legal battles over abuse allegations, according to the docuseries.

“There are glimmers of hope, but these places are like Whac-a-Mole,” Kubler said. “You get one shut down, and it’ll open again under a new name… sometimes in the same building with the same staff.”

The Netflix film advocates for the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, which calls for more thorough accountability for these programs. The proposed legislation would formally ban the use of restraints and seclusion, designate a group to make recommendations on the length of students’ stays and collect outcome-oriented data on students at least six months after they are sent back home.

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